AIEA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, who was elected to the state Legislature at just 27 and served two decades there before being voted to Congress in 2014, died Wednesday after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Takai died at his Pearl City home, surrounded by his family, his office said. He was 49 years old.
The news came just two months after the Democratic Congressman announced he would not seek re-election because his cancer had spread.
Following the announcement, Hawaii and national leaders, Takai's colleagues, and his constituents remembered Takai as a dedicated and humble public servant who spent his life fighting for others.
"He stood up for America's most vulnerable," President Barack Obama said, in a statement. "He championed our troops and veterans, and proudly wore our nation's uniform. And his relentless push for cancer research inspired countless Americans fighting the same battle as him."
By law, the vacancy for the remainder of Takai's term can only be filled by election. State officials said a special election will likely be held in November; Takai's term representing Hawaii's 1st Congressional district ends in January.
Takai made his cancer diagnosis public in October, but remained optimistic about his health. But in May, Takai announced his cancer had spread and that he would not be seeking re-election.
"Mark confronted his diagnosis with the spirit we all hope we would share when facing such an awful disease," Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. "As we mourn the loss of our friend, we draw fresh resolve to find cures."
In her statement, Pelosi also pointed to an emotional exchange between Takai and Vice President Joe Biden at the Democratic Issues Conference in January. Takai told Biden about his cancer in the open forum, then thanked him for overseeing a broad, nationwide initiative aimed at bolstering cancer funding and research. There were few dry eyes in the session as the two then shared a warm hug.
In a Facebook post, Takai recalled the exchange and said he told Biden, "On behalf of those fighting cancer right now and our families all over the country, I thank you for giving us hope."
Congressman a 'shining example' of a leader
In response to Takai's death Wednesday, Hawaii leaders remembered Takai as a hard-working, dedicated and passionate public servant.
State House lawmakers, at the state Capitol for an ongoing special session, held a moment of silence for their colleague Wednesday afternoon. Takai's good friend, state Rep. Aaron Johanson, said Takai's life of service is inspiring.
"It's a good charge to the rest of us -- that the whole point of public service is people and to help people and that is what he did," he said. "He loved Hawaii and he loved God and he loved his family first and foremost."
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who worked alongside Takai in the state Legislature and then in Congress, said Takai had a "a servant's heart full of aloha."
"He dedicated his life to serving the people of Hawaii and our nation. Mark's smiling face and ready laugh will truly be missed," she said.
Gov. David Ige called Takai a "shining example" of what it means to be a public servant. "Mark humbly and effectively served the people of his state House and Congressional districts," Ige said, in a statement.
Memories of Takai and condolences to his family also poured in on social media, where people remembered Takai as humble, caring and "one of the good guys."
Resident Caroline McKinney said the world "lost a great human, one who really wanted to make a difference."
Resident Shane Earl Cheung posted, "This really hits home. You hear so much negativity with politicians ... but he truly worked for the people of Hawaii."
Showing promise at a young age
Takai was the oldest of four children, and his engineer father preached the importance of community service.
The lessons formed the foundation for Takai's career path. As a teenager, he balanced academics with athletics -- serving in student government and winning state titles as a swimmer at Pearl City High School.
Teacher Margaret "Mike" Ishihara says Takai stood out at the school -- and in her own four-decade-long teaching career.
Over the years, the two kept in close contact. And it was Takai's family members who broke the news Wednesday that he had died.
"What hurts me most is he just started on this, this particular part of his life," Ishihara said. "It's so cruel to take him now."
Takai's athleticism carried into college. From 1985 to 1989, he swam for the University of Hawaii.
'But his studies came first. He was student body president and editor of the school newspaper, while earning a bachelors degree in political science then a masters degree in public health.
Takai was proud of military, public service
After graduating, Takai was hired as a health educator at the state Department of Health. But soon, his desire to serve the public pushed him into politics. And in 1994, at just 27, Takai won a seat in the state House. He represented Aiea and Pearl City, and was re-elected nine times before being sent to Congress in 2014.
During his time in state politics, Takai sought improvements to veterans services, and worked to bolster education in the islands.
Takai often referred to those years as a student athlete and leader as good preparation for challenges later in life. And he said his military service -- as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard -- gave him a unique perspective into the real struggles of veterans.
In 2014, he told Hawaii News Now that his proudest legislative accomplishment was creating a Hawaii Medal of Honor, awarded to military veterans and their families.
Takai joined the Hawaii Army National Guard in July 1999, and was deployed to Iraq a decade later. In the guard, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and won a number of awards.
Two years ago, Takai took his biggest political step, running for the Congressional seat vacated by Colleen Hanabusa. He got 51 percent of the vote, and went on to serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Small Business.
He envisioned serving in Congress for years to come, but fate intervened.
In announcing in May that he wouldn't seek re-election, Takai said, "In life, we often make plans for ourselves. I had envisioned a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, building up the seniority and influence that were key to Senator Inouye's ability to deliver for Hawaii. But as often happens, we find ourselves on a different journey than what we had planned."
Takai is survived by his wife, Sami, and two young children, Matthew and Kaila. Details on services have not yet been released.